Practising the Block Chain

For the past year I have been working with Debbie Maxwell (now York Uni) and Dug Campbell (Bitcoin Scotland) to make the blockchain accessible to designers to allow them to ideate through its possibilities. Although hyped, the blockchain represents (for me at least) a way of thinking that challenges some of the control and linearity that remains in design cultures. Double Diamonds or the Design Thinking process still present passages of design from left to right and ‘lead’ to a design solution as though there is a teleological pathway. A destiny for ideas if you like.

Sure there are opportunities to move back and forth between steps, but the objective is to hone in on one idea, as though it were a target. Although in many cases it can be highly participatory, these systems tend to encourage a series of ideas to gain momentum that ultimately lead to an outright winner. In contrast the distributed nature of the blockchain makes it much harder to monitor the transactions that are within focus, but that’s the very point. The platform that supports distributed activities, does not require a central point of reference, but instead allows a wide variety of culturally disconnected transactions to take place. This is interesting because in the same way that the blockchain challenges the power of traditional banks that manage the flow and value of fiat currencies, the method also hints to a way to challenge the power of the designer who forever wants to manage the solution.

It is the potential in the blockchain to sustain complexity that I find interesting, it offers a consensual frame for highly differentiated practices, managing to sustain difference and at the same time, flow.

Two days one night

The distributed nature of the blockchain presents a vivid example of how to capture and possibly negotiate value across multiple social and environmental values. In the past the author of ledgers has retained control of what can be included and what cannot. Of how to express it and how to calculate the sum of all transactions. Distributed, the blockchain may be able to account for the many values across society – light, dark and grey.

A blockchain is described as a public ledger of all of the transactions that have ever taken place, eg. using the Bitcoin currency. The ledger is constantly growing in a linear manner as ‘blocks’ are completed through the recording of transactions. A copy of the blockchain exists not in one place like the transactions of a traditional bank, but [in many places] across the network of nodes in the Bitcoin system.

Beyond the various forms of metric ledgers that record financial transactions, citizens, times and space; cultures are underpinned by shared stories that are told through a series of passages, chapters and accounts. Within literate society, books and films share a great deal in common with ledgers as they rely upon a linear time base across which a story or an account is experienced by the recipient. Able to only articulate one line of activity at a time, the author shapes the reader’s experience by moving in and out of the activities of characters to reveal and hide circumstances that sustain the narrative.

However, the reading of a book or watching of a film constructs a ‘cognitive ledger’ in the mind of the reader who navigates the narrative to develop an individual understanding of the meaning and consequences of each of the interactions. In the case of a film taking place over a 90-120 minute period, the management of the director and the skill of the editor can offer a highly compelling experience through which the audience moves through a visual ledger that allows us to suspend reality and invest in the actions and affairs of the on screen characters.

An explicit manifestation of such a ledger (and perhaps closer to our theme) is the 2014 film Two Days, One Night by the Dardenne brothers. The film follows Sandra Bya, a working mother who returns to work on a Friday following a nervous breakdown to find that her 16 workmates have voted to take a €1,000 bonus, in place of her job. Supported by her husband and her workmate Juliette, she lobbies her boss to ballot the workers again on Monday morning. Successful in her appeal, she has the weekend to canvas each of the workers at their homes in an attempt to persuade them to change their mind. Following 16 meetings on door steps, back gardens, launderettes and street corners, Sandra returns to work on Monday morning for the new ballot to understand her fate.


Figure 1. Sandra’s interactions with different people over the Two Days and One Night

The film plays out as a ledger of interactions in which the audience develop a running balance of those who would prefer to keep Sandra, and those who would prefer to take the money. However, the brief insights into each co-workers’ lives describe complex personal circumstances which in the mind of the viewer complicates the running the total as to whether Sandra deserves to keep her job. However, Sandra’s activities between negotiations are as interesting as the co-workers’ lives and values that are represented through their partners, children and living conditions. Dominated through acts of consumption, we develop an understanding of Sandra and her family’s economic disposition through her drinking of bottled water, take-away pizzas, eating of ice creams and purchase of artisan bread, whilst her mental state is portrayed through an attempted suicide as her encounters (positive and negative) challenge all of her sense of identity.
In the end, the audience are left divided according to how we each balance the books between the welfare of Sandra and her co-workers, alongside wider politics of fairness.

Sandra and the audiences assessment to the value of her job becomes far more complex after interacting with families with many complex values. Can design engage in processes that lead to more complexity rather than certainty?

Workshops

Getting your head around the principles of the blockchain is not easy and innovation is creativity across the platform is largely restricted to the technically savvy sections of society. The first step that we wanted to take to both help ourselves and others understand the principles of the blockchain, was to develop a workshop that uses Lego bricks to make tangible the very intangible aspects of how it works. Inevitably the workshop involved a simplification of the blockchain and it was not designed as a comprehensive or accurate explanation, but rather as a prompt for opening up a dialogue and lines of questioning.

In order to present and consider the potential and ramifications of the blockchain, a tangible interactive workshop activity was developed and conducted during two iterative sessions in January (S1) and February (S2) 2015. Session 1 (S1) took place with approximately 20 Masters-level Design students whilst session 2 (S2) took place with 24 participants including designers, technology start up representatives and members of the local Bitcoin community.

Both workshop sessions followed a similar activity format. Participants were given a set of resource cards (slips of paper with symbols representing wheat, sheep, oil, wood etc.) and assigned 10 Bitcoins (pieces of Lego), which they were asked to mark as their own; in S2 this was through affixing an initialed sticker to each piece (see Figure 2). A central Lego baseplate was provided to log all transactions and, after explanation, the group was encouraged to conduct transactions between themselves to gather a more diverse group of resource cards (i.e. mix of sheep, woods, wheat etc.).


Figure 2: Marking the ‘Bitcoins’ with identifiable stickers. Photo: Lindsay Perth.

To complete a transaction a verbal agreement was reached and the resource card handed over (Figure 3) paid for with a Lego piece.


Figure 3: Beginning a transaction. Photo: Lindsay Perth.

The sold Lego piece had a new sticker added to it to document the new owner’s initial and then was placed on the block (central Lego baseplate) as a record of the transaction (Figure 4). To ensure that the correct number of Lego pieces were still in circulation the new owner took a replacement piece for the Lego piece recorded on the ‘block’.

Meanwhile, a subset of the group (5 people) were designated as ‘miners’ and challenged to solve mathematical puzzles. Once they had successfully completed a set number of these puzzles (up to 10 depending on how quickly they solved each puzzle) the rest of the group had to halt their transactions and the ‘block’ was sealed. For S2 the activity ran for three iterations to produce a three-layered ‘block’ (Figure 4).


Figure 4: The completed blockchain (3 ‘blocks’ high). Photo: Lindsay Perth.

The workshop sessions did not attempt to provide a comprehensive or accurate explanation of Bitcoin and blockchain but rather act as a way of opening up dialogue. Reflections upon the method and it’s effectiveness in building discussion and insight can be found in the short paper for the British HCI conference:
‘Effing’ the ineffable: opening up understandings of the blockchain by Maxwell, Speed and Campbell:
http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?doid=2783446.2783593
EffingtheIneffable_cameraready.pdf

Research Project

As a consequence of working through the blockchain as a method to support design, the team were successful in being awarded an ESRC grant for 18 months: After Money: If you change the representation of value, does it change the values that you can represent?

Summary: Cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are challenging the way we perceive money. Offering new models for financial transactions, based on trust, and maintained through its open transactional database, currencies such as Bitcoin challenge the government-regulated fiat currencies that we currently use today.

However, users of cryptocurrencies are beginning to realise that it is the underlying technology of the blockchain that is likely to have the most profound effect on how we understand money. The blockchain is an global open ledger that records and verifies transactions, whilst encrypting the identity of users changes entirely how value is accounted for. No longer are banks or governments the mediators of currencies, with the power to divest or invest to dictate the flow of value within society, the blockchain decentralises money and offers a platform for its creative use. Presenting money as code, users of the blockchain are starting to explore new opportunities for how values can be represented, as technologies such as the blockchain change the representation of value.

This project will introduce the underlying principles of the blockchain to audiences that would otherwise not be consulted on the development of new currencies. Using a design-led and participatory approach, the research project will explore potential use cases for money as software through involvement with families, small businesses and local civic services. The research represents a significant contribution to contemporary debates around the emergence of new forms of value exchange and offers tangible outcomes for local, economic and academic communities.

This 18 month project addresses directly the ESRC priority area: ‘Economic performance and sustainable growth’. The innovative design of this research project, its relationship with actual high street environments and involvement of the New Economic Foundation and the Royal Bank of Scotland constitutes transformative research at the high risk, high reward end of the research spectrum.

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